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University of Utah graduate student Eugenia Hernandez once thought what it would be like to be the ball bouncing around inside a pinball machine.

"I imagined the inside just being crazy," said the 26-year-old student. "I thought of something large scale and being inside it, like 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.' "

That surreal notion, which is what she imagined years ago while she was playing a pinball game, is now a reality. Sort of.

Hernandez is part of a small team that's taking that idea and realizing it as a video game. She's a graduate student in the U.'s new Entertainment Arts & Engineering (EAE) department, a master's program that fuses the college's computer science and film departments into a new program where students learn about the development of video games.

Students showed off their two master's theses recently, games that were conceived and developed by the department's first group of students. The U.'s undergraduate and master's degree gaming program have been nationally recognized. The undergraduate program was ranked third in the nation in video-game design, according to a new report by The Princeton Review. The U's two-year video-game master's program was ranked sixth in the nation last year, but has since slipped out of the top 10.

"I am shocked at how good the games are," said Roger Altizer, director of game design and production for the EAE program. I expected a high level of games, but these are phenomenal."

It does take a second or two to wrap your head around the concept of Hernandez's idea, which has become the game, "Robot Pinball Escape."

The player is a robot inside a pinball machine, which has a series of ramps and platforms above the playing field.

You bounce around the bumpers and targets and occasionally turn into a steel ball. But where the game separates itself from regular pinball is that the character then can jump above the playing field onto a series of ramps and floating platforms. At this point, it becomes more like a 3-D version of "Mario Bros."

Ten graduate students spent two semesters working on the game, and they hope to eventually sell it on Steam, the online PC gaming store, said Brandon Davies, 31, the game's lead engineer.

Meanwhile, another group of eight graduate students were working on a first-person survival horror game, "Erie,"in which the player battles against his or her own fears.

"I give you an eerie environment, and the fear is developed by the player himself psychologically," said Chris Diller, 26, the game's level and sound designer.

The player isn't armed with any weapons, but instead a can of spray paint. You travel through a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels in some sort of mysterious facility. Along the way, you use the spray can to mark where you've been as you make your way through the maze. At every turn, you hear and see creepy sounds and special effects. Eventually, you run into a horrific monster, and are chased through the level as you struggle to find your way out.

"A lot of survivor horror games that you see are really [about] becoming shooters," Diller said. "But with this, as you explore, you really want that player to feel uncomfortable."

Diller first started out in film school, but changed his degree to video game design when he realized the potential for interactive entertainment.

"I loved it way better than moviemaking," he said. "With movies, you can tell stories, but with video game, it's a whole new ball game." Google+: +Vincent Horiuchi